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Sonoma County: Cool country cousin

Sonoma County is the shy relative of neighbouring Napa Valley, and California’s destination of choice for wine-lovers

Sonoma County: Cool country cousin
Rolling vineyards in Sonoma County. Image: Getty

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Route 101 deserves more credit. True, it doesn’t have the photogenic contours of its iconic counterpart Highway One, whose silky, swerving strands cling to America’s west coast with such persistence that the Pacific gnaws at its hemline. Instead, it’s a straighter, more pragmatic road, a multi-laned, traffic-thrum workhorse. But it does a solid job, coursing 1,540 miles north from Los Angeles, through the central and northern patches of California, and on into Oregon, before finishing at Olympia in Washington state.

Today, this sinuous labourer is teaching me about the history and geography of the Bay Area. We’re barely 25 miles beyond San Francisco, but already the 101 has carried me across the Golden Gate Bridge, and shown me, on the ragged edge of the water, the razor-wire hostility of San Quentin prison — the high-security fortress and California’s oldest jail, which was dragged into the spotlight by Johnny Cash’s 1969 concert (and subsequent live album) in its gloomy confines. Now, as we flit up through Marin County, we study the landscape: the pregnant fulsomeness of the hills on either side of the camber and Loma Verde Preserve rising gloriously green immediately to the west.

We’re nearing the end of the lesson and still there are questions, which are posed just south of Novato. Left or right? Stick or twist? The latter options require a change onto the 37 and a drive north-east to the Napa Valley. The former means holding on to what I have and tracing the 101 north to Sonoma County. For any inquisitive traveller, this isn’t really a hard decision. Napa County may shine on the horizon — the jewel of California’s viticultural industry, full of gleaming wineries and temples of gastronomy — but it’s also a known commodity. Sonoma, its neighbour, is a swarthier slice of California; a shrinking violet slightly lost in the white-toothed glare emanating from the superstar next door. It’s the country cousin, where little towns such as Geyserville and Cloverdale skulk amid fields, and rustic roads meander between furrows of soil. Roughshod and uncompromising in the north, where the Northern Coast Ranges rise up and man-made Lake Sonoma spills into the grooves; shaded and serene in the west, where protected redwoods point at the clouds.

Leaving the 101 at Santa Rosa and turning onto River Road, I find myself marvelling that I’m just 55 miles from California’s most striking city. Sonoma is the northwesternmost of the nine counties that make up the San Francisco Bay Area. And while it’s officially tied to the metropolis of Alcatraz and crooked Lombard Street, it couldn’t seem more divorced from them.

Perhaps this is down to its rebellious spirit. It was, in some ways, the birthplace of the state. The 1846 Bear Flag Revolt — 26 days when insurgents took up arms against the Mexican authorities, and the US flag was raised over Californian soil a year before it formally became American — played out most notably in Sonoma Town. Or perhaps it’s down to its far edge: 76 miles of shore where the Pacific lashes at sullen sand and jagged spurs of land, mist creeping inland both morning and evening, giving the region a sense of mystery. When I arrive at the Farmhouse Inn, a spa enclave of 25 rooms near Forestville that will be my hideaway for three nights, mist inches across the late afternoon throwing a gossamer veil over the sun. I feel I’ve found another world.

Such fogs are crucial to Sonoma’s personality, delivering the moisture that makes it so fertile for viticulture. Some 200,000 tons of grapes — Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel — burst each year from the vines laced across its slants and slopes, fuelling over 250 wineries. Thus, it’s a destination ideal for travellers in search of soft reds and whites — though those who visit Sonoma’s many independent producers will find more of a rustic emphasis than in Napa.

“Wine has been making itself for thousands of years,” smiles Andrew Hock, one of the directors of Da Vero, a family-owned winery just outside Healdsburg. “We let it get on with that. We focus on being good farmers and being sustainable — the vines do the rest.”

We’re standing in the ‘willow circle’, the company’s tasting ‘room’, an outdoor space framed by pale branches of wood thrust into the loamy ground. Beyond, the vineyard looks more allotment than commercial operation. Other crops poke between the grapes — wheat, fava beans, barley and mustard, all abuzz with insects. Da Vero is a bio-dynamic producer, crafting wines without artificial help. “We’ve no pesticides, we don’t use chemical fertilisers,” Hock continues. “We’re dependent on creating
a healthy ecosystem.”

As if to prove this, two mosquitos launch attacks on my arm as we walk back to the lodge, past the shed where five pigs are lolling in mud (“Meet my team of tractors,” Hock grins). But the itching below my left elbow doesn’t detract from the quality of the 2014 Primitivo I sip while gazing across this little Garden of Eden, nor the 2015 Vermentino that follows it.

Vineyards stretch across Sonoma's rolling hills. Image: Getty

Vineyards stretch across Sonoma’s rolling hills. Image: Getty

A fabulous fake

Not every Sonoma winery takes this earthy approach. Indeed, to explore the valley is to observe a whole host of viticultural styles. Kendall-Jackson concocts the best-selling Chardonnay in the US, and pays tribute to this from a palatial complex on the west side of Santa Rosa, tour groups arriving by the coachload. Paradise Ridge, on the other hand, takes an arty angle on the north side of the same small ‘city’.

It perches on a soaring bluff, the rear veranda of its tasting room peering across 156 acres where sculptures are dotted in clearings — a huge ‘LOVE’ installation recalling the hippy dream of 1960s California; ‘The Temple of Remembrance’, an ironwork refugee from the 2014 edition of Nevada’s left-field Burning Man festival, where visitors remember dead loved ones by writing their names on ribbons and tying them to the metal.

Then there’s Sbragia, positioned at 275ft in the north-west of the county, at the remote end of Dry Creek Road. It’s a hotspot of bottles and barrels, specialising in Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, while dabbling in Merlot and Zinfandel. But a glass of room-temperature water would taste like ambrosia in such scenic circumstances. Sitting on its capacious balcony with a glass of Zinfandel, looking out to the south-east, there are parallel lines of vines as far as the eye can see.

Behind me, the afternoon is starting to flirt with the skyline. Beyond the lip of a ridge, Lake Sonoma is a fabulous fake, manufactured in 1982 via the construction of the Warm Springs Dam in a successful bid to hydrate this sometimes inconsistently irrigated region. It’s no less beautiful for its inauthenticity: forested flanks cocooning the reservoir, a bridge carrying highway traffic across the gulf, a marina sitting at its foot. But there’s a hardness to the picture as well. Rockpile Road takes me onwards and upward, past stubborn vineyard patches clinging doughtily to crags and pinnacles, and the further I go, the more I feel that civilisation has abandoned me, the sun suddenly white hot and ferocious, vultures hovering overhead.

It’s a reminder that, as well as dewy fruits and lithe wines, Sonoma deals in the raw and the rugged. The point is reiterated where Russian River cuts an oscillating dash across the county, giving River Road its raison d’etre. Guerneville, tucked into one of its folds, is a slab of small-town Americana so diminutive — a cluster of grocery stores and an old-fashioned cinema — that the thought that it lurks in the San Francisco Bay Area seems ridiculous.

A turn north here takes me into the shadows, to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, where arboreal giants of the American West show off elongated torsos. It’s instantly recognisable as a pocket of peace and calm, even if evidence of the local climate’s bad temper is everywhere — toppled trees, slain by ocean winds; grey roots protruding hopelessly. Others, though, have held their pose for eternity. ‘Colonel Armstrong’, so magnificent that it’s signposted from the car park, tips the scales at 308ft. This great gentleman is some 1,400 years of age, far older than California and the United States itself.

Were it possible to climb one of these wooden skyscrapers, the sea would be visible 13 miles west. River Road finishes its task, following the flow via Hollydale and Hilton, arching through Rio Nido, until, finally, we’re at Jenner, where the estuary pours into the Pacific. The tarmac awaiting me here belongs to Highway One; the jagged beast beyond is Sonoma Coast State Park.

I halt the car and wander down to Shell Beach, where the ocean and the last needles of land are engaged in a furious fight, spray punches and flinty parries. There’s no perfume memory of the Beach Boys’ California Girls here, no talk of Katy Perry’s melted popsicles. Instead, there are stern words: ‘Warning: Hazardous Surf Area,’ an insistent billboard shouts, its message so weighty that it needs to be delivered, partially, in capitals. ‘Like most north coast beaches, SONOMA COAST IS NOT FOR SWIMMING.’

Cold water, rip currents, backwash and unpredictable sleeper waves cause many deaths. I stare again at the ocean, which seems to be nodding like a doorman whose colleague has told me to move on, and take the hint.

SHED in Healdsburg. Image: Sonoma Country Tourism

SHED in Healdsburg. Image: Sonoma Country Tourism

Russian relations

I retreat to the road, and the arms of the enemy. Or, an enemy of yore. There are few more implausible places for a restaurant called Russian House #1 than the Cadillac postcard of Highway One, but here it is: an echo of Moscow. I enter expecting a US simulacrum of a Russian menu — a Putin Burger, a Red Oktoberfest beer — only to be welcomed in a language that’s unmistakably Slavic, and find that there’s no menu. In lieu, there’s a meal of the day — in this case, mushroom soup and pork dumplings — and the instruction that diners should pay what they think is fair.

“Our Russian House is not just a restaurant, but a cultural dialogue project [for] two nations,” my placemat says. “The communication between us will help overcome the misunderstandings, and separations, of the Cold War.”

If this sounds like a half-baked fantasy, the reality (revealed in perfect English) is more pragmatic. It’s run by Polina Krasikova and her business partner Tatiana Ginzburg, St Petersburg entrepreneurs who attended Burning Man in 2014, and were drawn to Sonoma by Russian River’s presence on the map. They knew the area’s history, that Fort Ross, on the northern reaches of the county’s coast, was once the southernmost Russian colony on the American continent. It was sold into US hands in 1841, but the association lingers. Driving through Jenner, Krasikova spotted an Indian eatery on the riverbank, and decided to try something new. An offer was made and her restaurant opened quickly in August 2015.

“We wanted to make it look like home,” she enthuses. “And it’s not right to ask guests in your home to pay, so our food is without price. We’re a community project; hopefully, we create a friendly atmosphere, but we’re also about asking people to think differently.”

It’s a typically woozy California dream, but crucially, the food is delicious. It needs to be. Sonoma has an increasing gourmet focus. Farmhouse Inn is the bearer of one of the county’s three Michelin stars. When I take a table in the house restaurant on a Thursday evening, the four-course tasting menu (from $94/£64) features iced asparagus soup with Dungeness crab, and black cod with bok choi. Healdsburg, meanwhile, has become such a hive of foodie flair that Tammy Gass offers culinary tours of its neat blocks via her company Savor Healdsburg.

“The town is like Napa 15 years ago,” she grins. “It has this laid-back atmosphere. It was a quiet farming place for so long, but it’s being discovered now. Most of the stops on my tour are new in the last five years.” She demonstrates this with a merry zeal — Healdsburg SHED, a superb delicatessen crammed with cheeses and patés; Bravas, a tapas bar with an outdoor veranda at the back and duck meatballs for $8 (£5.50); Scopa, an Italian restaurant so popular, you have to book 30 days in advance.

In the south-east of the county, in Sonoma Town, I grab a table at local favourite The Girl and The Fig, and scoff a plate of steak tartare. Through the window, central Sonoma Plaza is half-concealed by dusk, but has its own footnote: it was the site of the Mexican barracks seized in the Bear Flag Revolt. But on this evening, it’s in a playful mood, looking ahead to the yearly Sonoma International Film Festival, ‘Sonomawood’ wittily spelled out in fat, white, cut-out letters on the grass. From here, it’s a 15-mile drive east to Napa Town. But Sonoma shrugs and looks askance, cool and confident in its own skin.

Essentials

Getting there
From San Francisco Airport, 48 miles to the south, served by British Airways (Heathrow), United Airlines (Heathrow) and Virgin Atlantic (Heathrow, with a flight from Manchester from March 2017). A Norwegian flight from Gatwick to Oakland Airport, 42 miles to the south, launched in May.
Average flight time: 11h.

Getting around
To make the most of Sonoma County, you need to a hire car, typically from San Francisco and Oakland airports.

When to go
California is a year-round destination. Sonoma has colder winters than the state’s southern and central coasts, but enjoys temperatures as pleasant as 17C as from March. Summer sees it basking at 24-28C.

Need to know
Currency: US Dollar. £1 = $1.46.
International dial code: 00 1 707.
Time: GMT -8.
Visas: British citizens need an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) pass to travel to the USA, valid for two years ($14/£10). Apply online at esta.cbp.dhs.gov

More info
sonomacounty.com sonomavalleywine.com visitcalifornia.co.uk visittheusa.com

How to do it
America As You Like It can arrange a 12-day City, Landscapes and Vineyards road trip through northern California, with three nights in Sonoma. From £1,068 per person, including return flights, car hire and accommodation.
Bon Voyage is offering a 10-night Coastal California & The Wine Country fly-drive break, calling in at Sonoma as well as San Francisco and the Napa Valley. Prices from £1,595 each, including international flights, vehicle hire and accommodation.


Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)